Friday, June 10, 2005

Never deny the power of ice cream

After two nights we meant to go to Lednice, which has a castle and some nice gardens. To get there, you have to go to Mikulov then bus to Lednice. For whatever reason, the bus never came, and we decided to make the best of it. The tourist information office found us a hotel to check into, then we went off to check out Mikulov castle. Along the way, we took a quick tour of a synagogue. I'm not Jewish, but I've always felt an affinity and fondness for the culture and people. We learned that Mikulov was once home to a large Jewish community and, to my delight, it was the seat of the very well-known Rabbi Low.

Mikulov castle was very cool. Many museum pieces are out in the open, you can touch and poke all you want, and though there's a certain push to keep visitors moving in the tour, our docent never seemed to prod anyone. The fabulous Lombardi bust of a woman with a veil over her face will haunt you: her features are subtly discernible 'behind' the veil, and you could stare at it for an hour wondering how he managed to get that impression out of solid marble. At the end of the tour there's a room with a lot of stuffed birds, including hawks and owls and a European goshawk. They're a bit bulgy, having been done in the old fashioned way, but they were a nice echo to the European kestrel I spotted at the top of the castle before the tour.

In the late afternoon we wandered down the square, had a good dinner, and along the way home the mate wanted some ice cream. I wanted to put my feet on a nice pillow, but relented. As it happened, the ice cream shop had an internet computer. I needed to find out how to get to our last hotel in Vienna, so I decided to log in. The computer wouldn't get to Gmail. A woman who understood English overheard our frustration and tried to help us, but the internet was clearly down. Thanking her, we gave her one of my hawk pins.

She and her husband immediately recognized what the bird was, and then the third person in their party, the husband's sister, told us her own husband was a falconer and bred hawks. I was stunned. What are the chances of this happening?! Jolana offered to come pick us up at our hotel the next day and bring us to visit her husband.

Hotel Eliska, at 1000 korunas ($40) was tiny, spartan and a bit noisy, and used outdoor carpet indoors. But it had at hair dryer, all the soap you could use, good towels, and comfortable beds. As it would turn out, it was better than the next hotel we would stay at.

Jolana's husband Helmut is Austrian and owns about twenty breeding pairs of peregrines and gyr-peregrine hybrids. He's been involved with falcons since he was a child. We spent the morning and afternoon talking hawks and looking at his birds, and I regret not knowing enough about longwing falcons to discuss them intelligently. Being Austrian, Helmut keeps his chambers clean and he's very cautious about diseases. He makes an adequate living as a raptor breeder. His success rate has dropped low this past season, but is expected to improve. He's recently imported some gyrfalcons, but apparently the weather in Czech is a bit too humid for gyrs, and the chances of death are high.

After feeding us a good lunch, Jolana got us onto a local commuter train back to Brno, where the tourist information office recommended Hotel Pegas. This was by far the dumpiest of the lot: the room was good sized and 40 yards from the main square, but that didn't make up for the price (1500 korunas), the noise, crusty towels, and the odor seeping up from the restaurant below. Even little Eliska had a hair dryer that Pegas lacked.

The next day we made it to the Punkva caves, which have some great mineral formations. The whole tour includes a tourist train ride to the entrance, the cave tour which has steep ups and downs, an underground boat ride, and a cable lift to the top of a gorge that one sees from the bottom in the cave tour. Here we met another charming couple: Alex from Massachusetts and his Czech girlfriend Katerina. In another instance of fine Czech hospitality, she offered us a ride to Brno, where she and Alex were going. Even their bickering about Alex's driving was cute.

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